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On 'Freedom', Amen Dunes Exorcises His Ghosts, Past, Present and Future

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

On his fourth album under the moniker Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon wraps some unpleasant stories in pleasant sounds.

Amen Dunes

Sacred Bones

30 March 2018

Throughout his career as Amen Dunes, Philadelphia's Damon McMahon has not been an easy character to figure out, musically or lyrically. Whether it was living and recording in China for two years, coming up with an EP of Ethiopian pop covers or recording his previous album Love with Colin Stetson and members of the Canadian collective Godspeed! You Black Emperor.

That Montreal band is known for coming up with various dystopian visions, and as far as Freedom, goes that approach seems to have caught up with McMahon. Or, maybe, he simply decided it was time to exorcise some of his past, present and possible future demons. But while Godspeed! You Place Emperor operate on a much more general, grander scale, McMahon keeps it personal and personalized.

If you listen to Freedom casually, all that would stick would be this suite of sophisticated, quite intricate pop songs that cannot be entirely connected, but recall certain 1970s bands that were brilliant at such a genre - Steely Dan, 10cc, or later on New Zealanders such as the Chills and the Clean. In essence, McMahon delivers his deep bitter, visions in these refined, finely coated musical pills.

As usual, his choice of collaborators is as good as his musical taste (along with Ethiopian pop, covering Tim Buckley on one of his previous efforts certainly is a sign of it) - along with the usual band members among whom is Parker Kindred (Anthony & the Johnsons, Jeff Buckley). On Freedom he also engaged produce Chris Coady (Beach House), guitarist Delicate Steve, Nick Zinner and bass player Gus Seyffert (Beck, Bedouine).

Such an approach with musicians that are truly able to deliver it, you get this smooth, almost easy to digest musical image that is almost a joy to listen to. Almost. But then you concentrate on what McMahon is presenting in his personal stories and visions, and things might not be so pleasant. What they can certainly be is cleansing.

As McMahon presents his darkly-toned visions and gets rid of them, so can the listener. That is probably the reason he has presented them in such elegant, and often beautiful musical content, like on "Satudarah" and the title song, for example. But you certainly have to brace yourself for some strong, often sardonic visions - "She looked so pretty, cigarette in her mouth / She'd grown mature, man she filled out." ("Dracula"). Or his look, as he puts it, at "a distorted male psyche" in "Miki Dora". No matter how you take it, the Agnes Martin quote that opens the record, "I don't have any ideas myself; I have a vacant mind", is not exactly something you can truly apply to McMahon, but certainly amply describes his state of that same mind when he was making this album.

That was the opening, near the end he keeps repeating "that's all not me", and leaves the listener in a mid-thought. Maybe Freedom is not all him, but hopefully it is not all from him, since McMahon, Amen Dunes has come up with a quietly stunning record.

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